The Mick and me: Lessons of a young sports writer

I met Mickey Mantle once, unfortunately.  It came to mind a few days ago while wolfing an “All Star Special” at my favorite late night breakfast spot, the Waffle House, in Tempe. 

It wasn’t the waffle or the grits that pricked the memory, though.  I was reading the usually-stodgy New York Times Book Review and came across a new book about Mantle:  “The Last Boy:  Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood” by Jane Leavy. 

The reviewer, Keith Olbermann, the MSNBC anchor, wrote that “almost everyone in sport over the age of 40 has a `When I met Mickey story. . . . ”   And I certainly did.

It was about 1972, and I was a sports writer then for the Tulsa World.   I’d violated one of the cardinal rules of  journalism:  Always appear you’re feverishly at work on a big story or the editor will hand you a stupid assignment.  And I got caught that day with my hands off the keyboard. 

The sports editor, Bill Connors, was a brilliant columnist and the most organized person I’ve ever met.  But Bill wasn’t immune to shallow ideas.  And so he asked me to venture out to a celebrity golf tournament, at Rolling Hills Country Club, I think, and chat with The Mick.  I hated the assignment and I hated dealing with celebrities, or in this case a famous has-been.  Mantle had left the New York Yankees and baseball three or four years before and was on his way to becoming a fulltime drunk.  But I had little choice.  I went.

I stood on a large patio in back of the clubhouse and waited for Mantle to appear.  The scene was what I expected.  Tanned businessmen with big bellies, smoking and slipping down a few cool ones before hitting the links. Some schmoozed with jocks, like Jerry Kramer, the celebrated Green Bay Packers guard of yore.  I asked Kramer if he was a good golfer.  “No,” he said.  “I just like to hit the ball hard and watch it sail a long way.”  I watched him tee-off.  And he did drive the ball a long way, into nearby trees or not I don’t recall.

Eventually Mantle appeared on the patio with a drink in hand and I introduced myself.  I probably asked my standard cold interview question:  “Do you have a minute to talk?”  He seemed cordial enough but it soon became clear he was disinterested in an interview.  Still, he didn’t say, no, and might even have given me a glimmer of encouragement.   I didn’t want to return to the office empty-handed.  Already some copy editor was drawing up the dummy and scheduling a place for `Mantle story.’

I followed him around a bit.  I did a slow burn as he glad-handed members and ignored me.  I was young then and hadn’t got used to humiliation.  Not that I ever did.   Even years later it stung when at another celebrity golf tournament I would not only be snubbed by Willie McCovey, the one-time Giants’ star first baseman, but given a stern lecture on the etiquette of setting up interviews with him.     

So I stood back for a while and waited, watching Mantle mingle.  Still muscled, fairly trim, nice-looking guy, a man’s man, or at least a businessman’s man.   I had brushed shoulders only once before with the Mantles, having played against The Mick’s brother, Ray, in an Army baseball league at Fort Lewis, Washington.  It was Mickey’s dream, I read, to play in a Yankee outfield with the twins, Ray and Roy. But it never worked out.

Tee-time was near and I approached The Mick once more as he eased into a golf cart with one of the members.  As the cart began to move forward along a dark asphalt path, Mantle said, “Shoot,” and I began with a question I no longer remember, sort of stumbling along at the side of the moving cart, and feeling much the fool.  If I’d had any guts I would’ve slammed my notebook, told Mantle to shove it and left.

In no time the path narrowed, the cart edged me into a small stone wall and left me behind.  Mantle looked back with a devious smile.  “Is that it?” he said.  And that was it.  My one meeting with The Mick.

I’ve often thought about that incident and searched for an apt description of the look I saw on Mantle’s face as he rode off on the golf cart 40 years ago.   It wasn’t just a guy kissing off a reporter.  It was more than that.

Then just the other day I happened on to an online biography, “Mickey Mantle:  America’s Prodigal Son,” and came across a passage of how he mistreated his wife, Merlyn, in public.  Drunk, Mantle once pushed his pregnant wife to the ground in the company of other men.  The twins, Ray and Roy, were so upset they went to their mother and asked that she talk with Mickey.  Another time at a party, he pulled a chair away from Merlyn as she attempted to sit down.  At yet another party, he soaked a towel and threw it into her face.

“Merlyn,” so I read on page 147, “eventually concluded there was something sadistic in her husband’s treatment of her.” 

Sadistic.  That nails it for me.  It is the description that I sought for so long to explain the day I met Mickey Mantle.

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